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The bells are ringing … and ringing …
Festival recitals include 17th-century concertos and digital-age compositions

| 13 August 2003


University Carillonist Jeff Davis, from a tiny room atop the Campanile, performs a carillon piece as visitors look on. He is one of the musicians scheduled to perform during the upcoming Berkeley Carillon Festival.
Noah Berger photo

For $75 you can catch Springsteen at PacBell Park this weekend; $120 will buy you passage to the San Francisco Symphony’s opening gala.

But for a bigger sound than even the E-Street Band can muster — with front-row seating and free admission — try Faculty Glade next Thursday through Sunday (Aug. 21-24). That’s when carillon enthusiasts from throughout North America and Europe, converging on campus for the 6th Berkeley Carillon Festival, will share carillon lore — new compositions for the instrument, the tuning, design, and acoustic properties of carillons on several continents — and enjoy eight recitals performed on the bells atop the Campanile.

Slim pickings for scalpers. Audible for miles (but best appreciated within 200 feet of the tower), the eclectic programs promise all manner of music — from a 17th-century Vivaldi concerto to improvisations on jazz tunes, variations on Japanese folksongs, whimsical dances honoring architect Antoni Gaudi, and compositions for carillon by John Cage, Edmund Campion, and David Wessel.

Carillon virtuosos
The festival, held on campus once every five years, honors the Class of 1928 — which in 1978, as its 50th-anniversary gift, enlarged the original 12-bell chime (installed in 1917) to a 48-bell carillon. In 1982, Cal alumnae Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers again enlarged the carillon, to its present 61 bells, giving Sather Tower’s instrument a five-octave range and status as a “grand” carillon.

The 2003 event features three renowned invited guests from Europe, where the carillon was invented — Jacques Maassen from The Netherlands, Koen Van Assche of Belgium, and Anna-Maria Reverté of Spain. “All of them are fabulous performers,” notes University Carillonist Jeff Davis. “They play an unwieldy instrument with great sensitivity and musicality.”

In honor of his distinguished service to the instrument, Maassen — who directs The Netherlands Carillon School — will receive the high campus honor that got its start as a carillon award, the Berkeley Medal. “He comes from many generations of carillonists; he’s a composer, performer, teacher, writer known all over the world in our field,” Davis says. “This is an artist who really deserves the Berkeley Medal.”

The Dutch carillonist (or “carillonneur”) will give two concerts — from 5 to 6 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday. His compositions will be included in each of the other recitals, several of which have been scheduled at noon and 5 p.m., says Davis, at times convenient to staff.

Van Assche, who began studying the carillon at the age of 14, is City Carillonneur for several Belgian municipalities. Reverté, a native of Barcelona and the carillonist of the palace that serves as seat of the Catalan government, has won several international performance awards.

The world’s largest musical instrument, the carillion consists of bank of cast-bronze bells played from an organ-like keyboard linked by a mechanical “transmission” to the bell clappers. Given the magnitude of the carillon and the relative scarcity of bell towers, there are no more than a handful of full-time positions for carillonists in all of North America and “a higher percentage of amateurs than most musical performing fields,” notes Capital Projects contract administrator David Hunsberger, who is slated to play in the first recital — at noon, Thursday, Aug. 21. Also on the program are John Agraz, a medical technician at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital who has played the Campanile’s bells since 1972, and UC’s Jeff Davis.

Eclectic offerings
Among the pieces Hunsberger will perform is “Fantasy for Carillon” — written for a virtuoso University of Chicago carillonist, Daniel Robins, who wanted something challenging to play. “Roy Hamlin Johnson wrote it to see if he could give Robins a run for his money,” notes Hunsberger. “It’s one of the few pieces that makes my arms ache.”

Preconceived notions about the carillon may get a shake-up at the 1:30 p.m. concert on Saturday, presented by the Department of Music and the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). From the turf of Faculty Glade or the tree-lined Campanile Esplanade, concertgoers will hear such recent works as a duet by Assistant Professor of Music Edmund Campion (performed by Davis and Hunsberger), a pair of 1954 John Cage compositions for carillon, and the world premiere of “Alignments,” written by CNMAT’s David Wessel, professor of music, combining live carillon music and computer-generated sounds — the latter created with the help of a specially constructed synthesizer.

The carillon, notes Hunsberger, does not combine easily with other instruments, given the volume and the long decay time of the sounds produced by its bells. Digital instruments may well be an exception. “Here, where you’re using electronic sounds, there’s opportunity to do very interesting things.”

No tickets are needed to experience these brand new sounds; anyone out and about at concert time can pause to hear the maestros.

For information, see ls.berkeley.edu/ ept/music/carillon.